Friday, March 26, 2010

The expat community in Cuenca


Perhaps one of the principal reasons that Cuenca was selected as the top place to retire in the world by the magazine International Living last year is the incredibly low cost of living. It also may have to do with the fact that one of the authors of the article is connected to the real estate community here in Cuenca....

Regardless of the reason, Cuenca is home to an interesting group of expats. We have met a lot of them through the one and only bilingual bookstore here, the Friday night "Gringo nights" at two local bars/ restaurants, and through my work at the University of Azuay. Truth be told, we don't have a heck of a lot in common with these folks. With some rare exceptions, hardly any of them speak much Spanish, which never ceases to amaze us. This fact makes their experience here very different from ours; they will never connect with the locals they way Spanish speakers can, they tend to stick together and create their own little gringo communities, which is natural; and they are limited in what they can do on a day to day basis. Still, there are some very interesting characters and it's not just any gringo who picks up and decides to move to Ecuador for retirement.

I do want to write about 3 of my favorite ex pats that I've met. One is Richard, the "first gringo" to come to Cuenca. One of the first Peace Corps Volunteers to come to Ecuador in the mid 60's, Richard was instrumental in creating the Sports Federation of Azuay which promotes physical education program in schools, city parks, and universities throughout the city. After his Peace Corps stint, he ended up staying in Cuenca, getting married, raising a family, and opening up the Abraham Lincoln Center, one of 2 inter cultural organizations in the country. This was where our friend Alex studied years ago on an exchange program with Lewis and Clark College. The Center is going strong today and houses a small library (funded in part by the U.S. government) and offers English and Spanish classes to locals and foreigners. I was thrilled to discover the library and am there every single week... Richard has some amazing stories about Cuenca 40 years ago and he has really helped to shape the city for the better and is highly respected by the locals.

Gringo #2 is actually a couple and they are considered to be the 2nd and 3rd gringos to come to Cuenca, again in the late 60's. Their story is amazing. With two small kids in tow, they left the US in the late 60's as Vietnam was approaching and they hitchhiked through Mexico and Central America and ended up in Ecuador. They loved Cuenca, were hired to teach English by Richard, the Peace Corps guy above, and had 5 more (yes, I said 5) kids here. As Kate said, "it seemed like the thing to do back then and our family was considered small...." Did I mention they are very Catholic?? Turns out they live a couple of blocks from us and are now professors at the University of Cuenca. Of their 7 kids, only one stayed in Ecuador while all the others are in the U.S.

Last but not least is our friend Ron who hails from San Juan Island. Surfer, buddhist, farmer, traveler, former lawyer, father of 2, remarried to a local doctor, volunteer at the local orphanage, former Blues DJ....Ron is just an amazing guy. He lived with his kids and ex wife in Cuenca twenty years ago (doing a year similar to ours) and found himself back here later in life. We have visited him in his beautiful remodeled hacienda 45 minutes outside of town and we'll be back again for some R+R (like we really need it :) The enclosed photos are from his house and the town of Paute. He and his wife plan to turn their hacienda into a free clinic for rural folks who do not have access to health care. It's an amazing piece of property and what a great cause!

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